While the burning blaze of wildfires is an obvious threat, wildfire smoke can also be hazardous as it makes outdoor air nearly unbreathable.
The harmful nature of wildfire smoke comes from the microscopic particles it contains. According to the EPA, the particles find their way into your eyes and respiratory system, which can cause health problems such as burning eyes, aggravating lung and heart diseases and, in worst cases, premature deaths.
The people most at risk from wildfire smoke are people with lung diseases, such as asthma, or heart disease, older adults, children and expectant mothers, according to the CDC. However, wildfire smoke can be harmful to anyone.
Because of these risks, residents may be advised to stay indoors during a wildfire event. Still, the microscopic particles from wildfire smoke can also find their way indoors, making the air quality within homes potentially hazardous.
A swimmer in Cameron Lake in front of the Cameron Bluffs wildfire near Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Here are some tips on how you can protect your family and your home from the dangers of wildfire smoke.
Prevent wildfire smoke from entering your home and car
Woman tries to seal off her window air conditioning unit. (David Ryder / Getty Images)
During a wildfire smoke event, local officials may advise residents who have not been evacuated to stay indoors and limit their exposure to the poor outdoor air.
An image showing smoke filling the air on May 30, 2023, above Nova Scotia, Canada, as wildfires continue to scorch the landscape. (@bigmacdaddy_eth via Storyful / FOX Weather)
"If you’re one that uses a window (air conditioner) unit, don’t turn on your A/C," says FOX Weather Meteorologist Britta Merwin. "When you’re driving in your car, recycle your air -- the button with the arrow? Hit that, because you don’t want to bring in the air from the outside."
The EPA provides the following advice on how to reduce the amount of smoke that enters your home:
- Keep windows and doors closed - To stay cool while windows are closed, use fans and air conditioning. If need be, seek shelter elsewhere to remain cool.
- Seal off your HVAC system - If you have an HVAC system with a fresh air intake, set the system to recirculate mode or close the outdoor intake damper.
- Seal off your window air conditioner - If you have a window air conditioner, close the outdoor air damper; if this is impossible, do not use the air conditioner. Also, ensure the seal between the air conditioner and the window is as tight as possible.
- Seal off your portable air conditioner - If you have a portable air conditioner with a hose that vents out of a window, avoid using it. If your air conditioner has two hoses, ensure the seal between the window vent kit and the winder is as tight as possible.
- Avoid using an evaporative cooler - Evaporative coolers can bring in smoke from the outside, so try not to use it unless there is a heat emergency.
"If you live in a big apartment building in New York City, you’re going to be fine with your A/C running," Merwin said. "The folks in Upstate New York that might have an A/C unit in their window -- that’s going to bring in the smoke into your home."
Merwin also suggests putting a wet towel at the bottom of your window sill or your door.
"The smoke that’s trying to get into your home is going to be absorbed by that wet towel and keep the levels lower inside your house," she said.
Keep indoor air as clean as possible
Air filter in a home, while a cat sits in front of a window. (Michael Swensen / Getty Images)
The EPA also provides recommendations on how to clean the air in your home:
- Use a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency filter - This will remove fine particles from the air.
- Use a DIY air cleaner - This temporary alternative to a portable air cleaner is still effective. To make one, attach a 20" x 20" air filter to the back of a 20" x 20" box fan using either clamps, duct tape or bungee cords.
- Run your HVAC system’s fan - If you have an HVAC system with a high-efficiency filter installed, run its fan as often as possible to remove particles from the air.
Avoid activities that increase air pollution indoors
While you’re cleaning the air in your home, try to avoid doing activities that may introduce more or kick up existing particles into the air:
- Smoking cigarettes and cigars.
- Using gas, propane or wood-burning furnaces.
- Spraying aerosol products.
- Frying or boiling food.
- Burning candles or incense.
- Vacuuming, unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter.
Carefully clean up after a wildfire smoke event
Wildfire smoke events often leave behind ash or other debris around your home, exposing you and your family to particles that can irritate your eyes, nose, and skin and cause other health problems.
To safely clean your home of these particulates, the EPA advises residents to keep these tips in mind:
- Older adults, children and people with heart and lung diseases should not participate in cleanup work.
- Wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes and socks - This will help reduce your exposure to ash.
- Wear an N95 respirator - This will protect your lungs from breathing in ash.
- Change your shoes and clothing before you leave the cleanup site - This will help prevent you from tracking ash into your car and other places. Also, be sure to use and clean doormats regularly, which can help reduce how much ash is tracked.
- Clean carefully - Ash that has settled on surfaces may be kicked up into the air, increasing your chances of breathing in the fine particles. To avoid this, avoid dry sweeping or other actions that can bring ash into the air. Instead, try misting surfaces with water before sweeping and then follow with wet mopping.
"When you come back inside, take a shower," Merwin said. "Treat it as like a high pollen day. You want to change your clothes, get the smoke off of you."
Before, during and after a wildfire smoke event, be sure to check the air quality index for your area.